An exclusive interview with actor Dominic Cooper, who plays two roles in the new film The Devil’s Double—that of Saddam Hussein’s son, the notorious "Black Prince" Uday Hussein, and the Iraqi army lieutenant Latif Yahia, his reluctant body double…
Landmark Theatres: What was your process for developing both Uday and Latif as three-dimensional characters?
Dominic Cooper: I had to find a way into this monster’s [Uday’s] head that would allow me to play him. There’s always a certain amount of yourself that you want to bring to a character, or something you need to like, or at least understand in some measure the process of their behavior and there was nothing I could find. The more research I did on this guy, the more horrified I was. I was astounded that this man had absolutely no moral code. He’d do whatever he pleased and there was absolutely nothing stopping him so I was beginning to despise him. A big question I kept asking director Lee Tamahori: "I’m fine, I will just portray this hideous man, but there must be something." We both discussed, in Freudian terms, going back to what this guy himself had experienced and why he was the man that he became. You look at the children of dictators and they are kind of messed up. You get an understanding of the things he would have been exposed to as a kid. The horror, the images of torture he would have seen, as we know, as a four-year-old boy. His desperation to prove himself to his father, who ultimately thought he was sort of useless. He had no military capability and he was not going to hand his reins of power down to him so there was this constant struggle going on. So I had some emotional level on which to gage. And I really needed to sense that. And the love of his mother. I suppose there are three minor aspects of his personality that I could cling onto to sort of get some kind of comprehension of why he was who he was.
I was having huge amounts of fun playing this character because there were no rules and no limitations; I was at liberty to do what I pleased. And then we started worrying that this character was becoming too accessible or too exciting to watch and it would make Latif seem mundane and rather boring and the truth is we needed him to be the hero. I’m really pleased with how it measured out. What we were desperate to achieve was that there was a distinct difference between both the men. And that was sort of down to very, very basic principles of acting, and I spoke at length with director Lee Tamahori about it. There was a very distinct physicality separating them both. They have a different style of speaking and different vocal range. And that, for me, was really interesting to tap into. I loved the challenge of that. I hope that’s what’s made anyone who watches it not left questioning who is who—I think it should be very clear who is who at each given time.
What I found exciting to play was the other character which was Latif, who is a military savvy soldier being forced into a position where he had to act and perform and become something that he had no interest in being whatsoever. So again, you’d have this kind of stoic military family man, a traditional man who’s being forced to play this lunatic and I hope that’s realized as well. I knew it from the moment I read the script I wanted to be part of this in some way because I knew how rare it was to find a script like this, and how rare it is as an actor to have a challenge like this. And actually, because of the speed in which we filmed it, and the lack of time that we had to sit and question everything or fear everything, the choices that we made were more immediate and creative. Things had to get stripped away. There’s a moment where there’s a huge race between the two men in Porsches across the desert which is a fantastic one, but we didn’t have the time or the budget. So we asked, well, what can we do instead? Boxing. Let’s have them box! And it’s actually a really great scene I think. And then the scene right after that, the shower scene, which was very poignant scene to me. We shot it in the first week; I suddenly found this laugh of his and his cackle, and the evil of him. And that was from having to strip something away and make different choices.
LT: You created such real characters, as well as a visceral impression of Iraq in the 1980s, which seemed incredibly extravagant, indulgent and horrific at the same time.
DC: With regards to everything on every level, it became so beyond our thinking here, it was ludicrous. We had to scale it down, we scaled everything down really. People often ask about the torture scenes and they think no one could be this monstrous and actually it was kind of worse.
LT: Talk about the experience of working with director Lee Tamahori in developing the characters and working on set.
DC: We did actually have a fair bit of time. It was once we got shooting that there was no time for discussions or anything. In the beginning we had a week or so to just go through the scenes and see what was working but we had no idea of how technical it would become, just in terms of filming every scene twice—shifting into another character. But there was time enough to sort of work through how far I could go with him before it became verging on ridiculous. And a lot we improvised, because it’s very hard to stick to a certain dialogue with someone as manic as that. It was interesting how different their dynamics were in the space of a room. That allowed us to realize technically on the day when we were doing a master shot, which was done on a motion control camera, to put the two together in one scene. I always had to play Uday first because he was the one who drives the scenes, in charge of the scenes, controlling the tempo of the scenes and then I would have to do Latif because of his stillness and remember exactly where the manic Uday was leaping around. And then keep him in the eyelines, it became very technical.
Lee always knew exactly what he wanted from the moment I met him in the auditioning process. We were both very much on the same page with regards to it being quite dangerous territory when you start to want to make an accurate biographical detailed account of this time in history and this man’s life. We both met Latif after I knew I had the job and it still seemed like the recent past. His wounds from it, both mentally and physically, were still there, so it was very important and very freeing to decide that actually this is an incredible story that we can work from and have artistic license to change and make into our own. Ultimately it’s a gangster film about a raging tyrant who controls a country sadistically, so we didn’t want to make a historical account of this and that freed us up. Otherwise I would have gone with Latif and studied him for months, and he would have been happy to do that but I think myself and Lee felt it a necessity that that be the case.
LT: What did you discover in meeting and working with the real Latif, and how did the process affect your role?
DC: I found just talking to him completely inspiring because it bedded it into some reality. It would be hard for any of us in the west to comprehend what it’s like to live in those circumstances. I found it interesting how we all can put on a guise and become something else. How we’re all prepared and can, if we need to, be people we’re not. And how tempted was he by this? Yes, of course it was a volatile and dangerous environment, but once he said yes, once he had to, once his family’s life were at threat, how much did he indulge in it? How much did it affect him and how much was he involved in the atrocities that took place? It begs all those questions. The man had no choice; I mean, he’s a great guy. It’s just that every so often people will come up to you and mention something about a certain thing that had happened, it kind of made you shudder but at the same time I was removing myself from it because it wasn’t the story we were telling. It was like having someone there just telling me about the history of this country and what really went on.
That war, that part of the world, I kind of grew up with it always being on the television: it was always there, the war was present, but you felt very removed from it; you felt no responsibility towards it, many of us didn’t invest anything in it and I know millions of lives were at risk in it. And yet we know so little about it—about their culture, about the history of that part of the world. I like that this explores a very different side of that. And I think people are very naive to that country or how people lived in that city. I love that this is a sort of lavish take on a clubbing kind of exuberant nightlife and people enjoying themselves and women having huge freedoms. And a country that was run, in terms of its education and its medicine, it was absolutely fantastic. But ultimately, all you had to abide by was this: Don’t say anything against this dictatorship because they’ll kill you in the most horrendous way if you do. It was kind of a big learning experience and having Latif there was huge eye opener. I was certainly sensitive to not pry too much because I didn’t know what I’d discover or didn’t know whether I wanted to discover some of it. The story itself is, in its way, bleak enough. It’s a story about huge vanity, not so much his vanity but Uday’s vanity in wanting to recreate another one of himself. Wanting this thing to mold, manipulate and play with and turn into all the things he wasn’t. To have complete control of everything, which he was never ever really going to ever get.
LT: How challenging did you find removing yourself from the horrors of Uday at the end of each day on set?
DC: I try not to let whatever work I’m doing affect me to the point where I affect other people around me. I certainly don’t do anything method like that. I respect and admire people that do, massively, because it takes an incredible amount of strength and will. A film set is a very, very hard environment in which to do that. Focus is so key with something like this, where you have to go from waiting around or whatever you’re doing, having a conversation about something entirely different to being absolutely firing on every cylinder and being completely focused in that moment, what’s taking place, what’s going on around you, what’s affecting you, what you’re acting and responding to. Immediately after shooting I’d get rid of it, just try to get away from filming, no script or anything and go and do something completely different. It was hard.
Another thing that was kind of a new experience, and a learning curve, was the acting. One of the joys of it normally is that you’re responding and reacting to another actor in the room and a scene will then develop and change dramatically from your first take to the last take of the day of that scene. I was acting with myself or without anyone the majority of the time; it was a relief when Ludivine Sagnier and the other great actors were there. But the biggest scenes I had to do by myself; it was really hard to not have a response process. I didn’t take it with me at the end of the day. You do inhabit a bit of arrogance or you start believing or thinking that you can demand stuff, or get whatever you please. I had my brother around me a lot of the time but during filming. We’d go out to dinner and sometimes I’d get impatient with someone about something I would never normally get impatient about just because I was still in that mind space. That would occasionally happen and in that case, he’d just tell me to shut up. Latif, he was at liberty to use that power whenever he pleased in a society and environment where it would probably be quite handy every so often. Who knows whether he did or whether he didn’t. The character that we created didn’t.